Have you ever had this happen to you? You are visiting a friend who happens to be into music. Perhaps a sound engineer or a musician. And they want you to listen to a new artist they’ve found. So they turn on their stereo system and play it. Or perhaps they hand you a bulky set of headphones for you to listen. You nod your head and wait, and then the music starts, and you have blown away. You have never heard someone that good; it’s entirely surprising.

When you come out of your audio trance, you ask them where you can find more of that artist, and they tell you. You buy some of their music, sit down in your comfortable chair to listen, and are underwhelmed. What happened?

Some of you will know already, others have a good ear and will figure it out. The rest go and ask their friend, who laughs and says “It’s your sound system. It sucks.” Then they tell you the headphones were $400 DJ headphones or the price tag of their stereo system and how many years of tinkering they took to get it right. Now you know what you want: great, fantastic, sound. For that, you need quality equipment, but where do you find it?

1. Big Box Stores

A common answer today is, go to your local franchise of a nationwide chain. You know the one. Not only do they sell things in big boxes, the kind of look like one too. This isn’t a terrible idea. These chains provide a wide selection and relatively low prices due to their buying power. And you can usually listen to the system, sometimes in a specially wired room with the rest of the store muted. You can find quality there, but you may need to shop around for an experienced salesperson to help you. But big box stores don’t focus on high quality; they care about finding a selection people will buy, which can mean affordability over quality.

2. Audio Specialty Stores

Another local solution is a smaller store, independent or a chain, which focuses on sound equipment. Stereo shops, as they used to be called, have a good selection, usually eliminating those low price/low-quality brands and concentrate on solid performers and moderately high-end equipment. This can vary depending on the location, high population density cities or areas near significant music centers will have a different selection that rural area stores. Your chance of finding an experienced salesperson is much higher here, and they can help you find a system that fits your needs and environment while not breaking the bank.

3. Custom Installers

If you are willing to spend a bit of extra money, possibly more than a bit, you can hire an expert, someone who does custom system installations as their central business. The classic example is if you have more money than time, you hire an expert instead of trying to become an expert.  The installer will probably visit your home, take measurements, help you decide on equipment (not limited by what they have in stock), find and purchase it, and of course, install it. You don’t need to know more than what you listen to, how loud you like it, and answers to other simple questions they will ask you. The expert will handle most of it for you. For a price.

4. Internet Audio

At the other end of the spectrum is shopping for sound equipment online, this requires some self-education. You need to know what you need, what components go together, and much more. Shopping online doesn’t always mean Ebay or Amazon, either. Specialty sites, like Moon Audio, provide a wide selection of high-quality equipment from different manufacturers. Since they aren’t limited to one geographical location, they can dive deep into a single specialty and are rich with experience.

5. Vintage Equipment

Requiring even more expertise on your part is assembling a system from older or used equipment, this can be online on eBay or some other person to person sales site, or much more local haunting pawn shops or visiting yard sales. Equipment from the 1960s to the early 1990s can perform the primary job of providing good quality sound nearly as well as newer equipment, and at a fraction of the price. Compatibility can be a problem, but various inexpensive solutions can work around this and still improve your sound situation.

As you can see, there’s no one best solution to where to get sound equipment. A lot depends on your commitment to quality, your budget, your expertise. A modest improvement can be very affordable and easy. Big box stores will sell you a system with everything included. But the sort of high fidelity desired by audiophiles can be spendy and requires a depth of knowledge taking some time to acquire. Decide how far you want to go and take the plunge. Your ears will thank you.

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